Dr. Jose Ricard: A Memory from Herd Insider

This is a column from the February 18, 2007 issue of Herd Insider magazine, written by the President/General Manager of HI, Mike Kirtner, who occupies the same position with Kindred Communications, HI's parent company. Kindred includes four radio stations including The Dawg, 93.7 FM, where Rocky Smith can be heard mornings on "The Radio Ranch." This column was about her dad, Dr. Jose Ricard.

If not for a shallow stream that, at least for a short period was absent of deadly reptiles, and what he calls the "Grace of God," Marshall University would not have Team Physician Emeritus and the one of the prominent moving forces behind both the Joan C. Edwards Marshall University School of Medicine and the highly respected MU Sports Medicine Program of today, Dr. Jose Ricard.

Ricard has been associated with Marshall Athletics for over 25 years and a member of the Huntington community since the early 1960s. Ricard began his association with Marshall when he was asked in the early 1980s to become team doctor, a position at that time that had been held by Dr. Tom Scott and Dr. Colin Crawthorne since the loss of Drs. Chambers, Hagley and Proctor in the MU plane crash of 1970. Former Marshall University football head coach Ulmo Shannon "Sonny" Randle (1979-83) asked Ricard to step in temporarily and that "temp" appointment continues with Marshall even today.

He is the only physician who is a member of the Marshall University Athletic Hall of Fame. Ricard is a legend at Marshall, but the road to his quarter-century with the Thundering Herd was paved with many twists, turns and ironies. Coincidence or predestination, the story can be read either way, although Ricard will be the first to tell you, "God was there."

Ricard is a native of the island nation of Cuba, growing up in the era of Havana being a must stop tourist destination for well-heeled visitors from the United States in the 1930s-1950s. He graduated from the University of Havana Medical School and then fought in the Cuban Revolution against a man he would later work for, as Fidel Castro's personal physician.

In the communist era under Castro, a former baseball pitcher in Cuba and sports advocate, Ricard was Cuba's Olympian team doctor, started the Cuban Sports medicine program. It was this relationship that later allowed Ricard to defect from Cuba for the United States via Chile and Mexico. All these events occurred before his 35th birthday. The Ricard-Castro saga can be told in three parts. The first time Ricard and Castro met was during registration at the University of Havana. Ricard was in premed, while Castro was in pre-law.

Ricard had arrived early to insure acceptance into preferred classes. A late arriving Castro cut ahead of him in the registration line. An infuriated Ricard demanded that a security guard take corrective action. The security guard confronted Castro and introduced the pair. Castro calmly opened his jacket, showed a pistol and asked, " Do we have a problem?" A quickly calming Ricard said to the future Communist dictator, "No," then added, "but don't do it any more." That must have struck the young revolutionary funny, coming from the diminutive Ricard to the physically large, and armed, Castro and perhaps led to their future dealings being relatively non-confrontational.

The second encounter involved the doctor carrying his medical bag and occasionally a gun. During the Cuban revolution of the late 1950s, Ricard was drafted into the Cuban National Army to fight against Castro and the socialist insurgents.

These days, Ricard reflects on the similarities of the Cuban revolution and today's guerrilla warfare. He compares the war with the one America fought in Vietnam. The National Army was lead by Cuban leader, General Batiste, and was fought "hit and run" style by the revolutionaries, much like the Viet Cong against the U.S. forces in Vietnam. Castro's forces, as Americans have known for over 45 years, won the war and turned the island, just 90 miles from Florida and the United States coast, into a Communist stronghold that eventually brought the world to the brink of a nuclear world war in 1962 in clashes between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev, after Castro allied his country with the Soviets after the failed "Bay of Pigs" invasion of Cuba by the CIA and Cuban exiles in 1961.

Ricard, after being investigated by the winning revolutionaries, was allowed to return to medical school. Upon graduation from the University of Havana, Ricard began his career by delivering babies and caring for his fellow Cubans with the barest of medical supplies, when the United States quit buying Cuban sugar and suspended trade with the island nation, a policy still in force even today with Cuba.

The third and final encounter between Ricard and Castro took place when Ricard was asked to work as a team doctor with the Cuban sports medicine team, and eventually Castro's private physician. Similar to his initiation into Marshall, the sport's position was to be a temporary fill while the primary doctor was away in Russia. Castro's obsession with sports lead to a relationship with his former classmate. As well as eventually becoming Cuba's Olympic Team Doctor, Ricard became Castro's personal physician. Ricard did not volunteer for the position. He was subjected to conversations that made him nervous. "Too many things were discussed," stated the then young doctor who had fought against Castro during the revolution.

During this time Ricard witnessed several assassination attempts directed at Castro. One of the most memorable took place during a Radio Havana Broadcast. Castro had a habit of grabbing the microphone during his speeches. An engineer had rigged high voltage into the microphone. Only a panic attack of the assassin prevented Castro's electrocution. Although Ricard worked closely with Castro, the relationship was always casual. When asked about their relationship, Ricard emphatically states, " I don't like Castro," nor does he care for what his native Cuba has become under the longtime tyrant. Despite recent illness of Castro, Ricard is still unsure what will become of his native country in the post-Castro era although he hopes for better relations with the U.S.

In the summer of 1962, the U.S. would become part of Ricard's life permanently. He was invited to Chile to speak on behalf of the Cuban sports medicine program. He informed Castro, " I'm invited, but I really don't want to go. I am working on the Tokyo Olympics," coming up in 1964. Castro replied, " I trust you, you can go." With a twinkle in his eye, Ricard said, "He was wrong about trusting me."

Ricard attended the conference and began what should have been his return to Cuba from Chile via Mexico. A prearranged meeting at the Mexican airport to assist his defection was missed due to his late flight arrival. A quick phone call and quicker taxi ride to a friend's house started the pilgrimage to the United States. After changing into old, dirty clothes and boarding a crowded bus, Ricard headed for the American border. He was told not to speak. His accent would give him away. Although he was never scared, but extremely nervous, Ricard made his way to freedom by acting like a mute.

At the U.S.-Mexican border, more problems presented themselves. A prearranged plane to fly Ricard to freedom failed to show. Crossing the border in the trunk of a car was too risky. The only option was to swim the Rio Grande River, the border between Mexico and the state of Texas. The final problem was Ricard could not swim. Faced with the option of being forced to Cuba by the Mexican government, Ricard began to search for a shallow point in the river to cross. Upon finding one, he waded across knee-deep to freedom. After crossing the river, he later learned this part of the river was considered too dangerous for crossing by Mexicans into the United States, as it was normally infested with poisonous water snakes.

Exhausted, wet and tired, Ricard found his way to a Brownsville, Texas. Ricard sat on the curb, contemplating what to do, when a Mexican cab driver asked him if he was Cuban. Responding affirmatively, the cab driver put Ricard into his ride and he was whisked away to the FBI and CIA for clearance to stay in the land of the free. The story could easily end happily here, with Ricard remaining in Texas where his Hispanic heritage would have no doubt fit in faster than in West Virginia. However, Ricard's journey was only half done at this point.

He traveled to New York to live with his sister, and then on to Atlanta for his medical boards in the U.S. While in Atlanta, he was recruited to a town he knew nothing about, Huntington, W.Va., by Dr. Gaston Delemous. Ricard agreed to come to Huntington for one year to assist in a drug and alcohol abuse prevention program. The one-year visit to Huntington is now 45 years, another one of those "temp" arrangements in Ricard's life. In Cuba he was asked to be a temporary fill in for the Olympic team. In Huntington, he was only staying a year. At Marshall he became the temporary fill in as the team's physical.

At 79-years old, as of last Friday's (Feb. 2007) Sports Medicine Hall of Fame banquet, another part of the MU Sports Medicine Program Ricard was instrumental in bringing about, most men would have retired. "I have had the privilege of watching Marshall grow from a terrible tragedy to where we are now," said Ricard. "This is just another miracle in my life besides my wife, Amy, and my two daughters. "I love the coaches and the players. I had told them that I am getting old...you need to start looking for another person." Marshall did finally take Ricard up on his offer to step aside as team doctor a couple of years ago, as Dr. Ross Patton was appointed in that position.

But Ricard is still a very important part of the program as Team Physician-Emeritus and he still goes to his office daily at the Robert C. Byrd Medical Building, home of the Joan C. Edwards Marshall University School of Medicine. He even still sees current patients, although is not taking new patients…at least for now. He still is a very visible part of the Marshall family, attending many home games. He has given so much to the program, but Ricard proudly makes this statement:

"If I win the Lottery....I think it's 80 million dollars, I will give it all to Marshall and our sports medicine program." His wife, Amy, even hopes he will eventually take a vacation. We'll see. Ricard will tell you that his life, " is no big deal."

Actually his life is truly full of miracles. If anyone has already hit the lottery, it's Dr. Jose Ricard, truly a legendary figure in the city of Huntington and in Marshall University Thundering Herd athletic history.

From Herd Insider magazine, Feb. 18, 2007.

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